Byrd on the wire

In last winter’s prelude to the war in Iraq, a casual observer could have concluded that strident opposition was the stuff of street protests, op-ed pages and a single septuagenarian senator from West Virginia. Boasting 51 years in Washington—six in the House and 45 in the Senate—Robert Byrd became an Internet sensation for his eloquent Senate-floor denunciations of the Bush administration’s rush to unilateral war.

“We stand passively mute in the United States Senate, paralyzed by our own uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events,” Byrd told the Senate last February. “Only days before we [possibly will] send thousands of our own citizens to face unimagined horrors of chemical and biological warfare—this chamber is silent.”

Suddenly the senator—who was best known for his Ku Klux Klan membership, making recent racial gaffes (“There are white niggers,” he told Fox News in 2001) and supporting pork-barrel initiatives of various sorts—found himself something of a dove icon. But what Byrd’s antiwar perorations really served to highlight was the paucity of opposition from fellow House and Senate Democrats. How is it that the only Democrat with a voice was an 84-year-old from West Virginia?

“Rather than deliberate, discuss, debate, and test the limits of appropriate presidential power in the war on terror, Congress has decided it would rather just salute the emperor and then stand down,” he said.

Byrd raises this question repeatedly, yet never bothers to answer it.

Given the breadth of his career, one might consider him to be in a unique position to comment on his party’s impotency at such a crucial hour. While Byrd boasts of serving as an occasional adviser to Senator Hillary Clinton and an informal history teacher to the idealistic armies of Senate pages, the absence of such an analysis makes Losing America a bit of a loser.

That’s in part because Byrd’s oratory is married to its context, which is to say that after countless books and editorials playing out the arguments for and against “the Bush Doctrine” of preemptive war, Byrd’s rhetoric does not merit a close reread. With a fifth of this book serving as a compendium of his speeches, Losing America smacks of publishing-industry opportunism more than it seems a substantial contribution to the debate about the war on terrorism.

It probably doesn’t need to be said, but great speakers don’t always make great writers. Much of Losing America is plagued with wooden prose whose lofty reverence feels like it belongs somewhere in a Frank Capra film.

“I thought of the Senate pages, their shining eyes and uplifted faces, intent on my tales of the glorious past, as they searched to mold their own bright futures. May God keep them safe,” he writes. Readers will have to divine their own safeguards from such stultifying sentences.

Had Losing America been a My Life-styled mea culpa, such ramblings would be par for the course, and perhaps enjoyable. However, the book is marketed as a harangue comparable to the litany of Bush-bashing tomes that have emerged from the likes of comic activists like Michael Moore and Al Franken, strident liberal pundits like Joe Conason and David Corn, and Bushie apostates like Paul O’Neill and Richard Clarke. Within such a proven publishing niche, Losing America lacks the humor of the Moore-Franken set, the nuance of Conason and Corn, and the insider access of the apostates.

Still, with the centrist hawks of The New Republic recanting their war support; Moore’s movie stirring the pot; and a Bush administration furiously, if not effectively, still adamant about ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq, it appears the rigorous debate Byrd wanted before last March has finally arrived.